Ever since news broke about the FBI investigation of fraud and bribery in the business of recruiting 5-Star high school basketball prospects, I have been quizzical about the role of the Federal Government in all of this. Readers have accused me of being dumber than usual on these sorts of matters and I have gotten e-mails accusing me of being an “Internet troll” on this subject taking a ridiculous position simply to generate heat on the matter. Let me be clear; I am no dumber this week than I have been in the past and I am not “trolling”.
Before getting into substance here, let me set the stage. I really like college basketball; I have been a fan of college basketball since the 1950s. I liked it better when players stayed in college for 4 years before turning pro; I do not like the concept of “one-and-done” even a little bit.
I think it is hugely inappropriate for major college basketball programs to pretend that they are in the education business. They are not; they are in the basketball business; and in some cases, they also get involved in the education business. I have argued for years that major college athletic departments should be considered and taxed as business entities and that they should enjoy exactly no status that allows contributions to those departments to be tax deductible. I know that college basketball played at the top echelon is a profitable business and I do not mind that it is so if I get to see good college basketball games as a result.
Now for my problem with this investigation/prosecution… One of the charges at the heart of all this is bribery. The shoe companies allegedly provided money to top recruits and/or their family members using college assistant coaches as a conduit to influence the choice of that player regarding where he would play college basketball for a year or two. Consider these two points:
- First, bribery usually follows this trail. I pay someone to do something that is improper and to my benefit. To me, the “impropriety” is what makes bribery a criminal act. If I tip a headwaiter to get a choice table promptly at a restaurant, that is not bribery because what he does is not illegal. In his job, he gets to choose who sits where and when; if I slip him a portrait of Benjamin Franklin to get a prime table and he makes the choice to seat me there, no law has been violated.
- Second, imagine the situation where I am in high school and nationally known for my genius as a bassoon player. [Recall that Professor Moriarty was a virtuoso on the bassoon.] Perhaps both the New School in Philly and the Juilliard School in NYC covet a bassoon player for their orchestras. When/if each of them offer me a scholarship and perhaps some living expenses to attend their institutions, they are not bribing me. Those “inducements” seek to affect my completely legal activity of deciding where I want to go to school to enhance my skill levels.
What has seemingly happened in the college basketball scandal du jour is that there have been under-the-table payments to high school recruits as a result of the fact that the NCAA as the guardian of amateurism in intercollegiate sports has ruled out any above-the-table payments of any kind in matters like this. Now, let me be clear about something here:
- The NCAA rule book regarding what is OK and what is not OK regarding collegiate recruiting and eligibility is not the same thing as Federal Law.
- The NCAA investigators and its Committee on Infractions need to enforce the NCAA rule book. The FBI and the US Attorney Offices around the country need to enforce Federal Law. I do not want the NCAA investigators – a bunch of wannabe Inspector Clouseaus at best – doing the FBI’s business; as a taxpayer, I do not want the FBI wasting its time enforcing the NCAA rule book.
[Aside: If the allegations presented so far are indeed 100% accurate, there is indeed a Federal Law that seems to have been broken. That would be tax evasion on the part of the people who received the illicit payments to steer a specific recruit to a given school. Interestingly, the words “tax evasion” never occurred at the announcement of the arrests and charges in this matter.]
It turns out that I am not alone in my thinking here. Charles P. Pierce is a writer with a long history in sports commentary. He has branched out from that niche over the years but I have read his stuff in venues from the Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated and The National all the way to Slate and Gentleman’s Quarterly. He has a recent piece on SI.com which called this investigation absurd. Here is a link to his essay; please read it in its entirety. Here are his concluding sentences:
“Nothing good will come of this. The underground economy of college sports will adapt the way it always does. And the aboveground economy will remain the province of the unindicted sharpers who did such a great job with it in 2008. If Chuck Person goes to jail while those guys walk around free, the country is out of its mind.”
Charles P. Pierce and I are not alone in this sort of thinking. Also at SI.com, there is a column by Michael Rosenberg on this same topic. Please follow this link and read this column in its entirety also. Here are some selected bits of commentary:
“These criminals, we are told, ‘defrauded’ the universities that employed them. This may turn out to be legally accurate, but it is also utterly laughable. These schools—apparently Arizona, Louisville, Auburn, Oklahoma State, USC and Miami—are not victims. They are perpetrators … But as far as defrauding the universities … well this is like nailing the accountant who defrauded Al Capone. Let’s be honest about who is in charge.”
“The schools were supposedly ‘defrauded’ because these dastardly assistant coaches broke NCAA rules, then filled out forms certifying that they never did. The forms are another joke. Nearly everybody in college sports must fill them out, and I am still searching for anybody in history who used them to confess to anything. They’re just a cover for the schools.”
I am not trying to make the case that no one did anything wrong here. What I continue not to understand is how and why the FBI and the US Attorney’s office spent two years investigating and wiretapping and using undercover assets to bring all of this to light. There are real criminal enterprises at work in the country; there is an opioid epidemic; there are problems with human trafficking; there are cyber-criminals at work on a daily basis and so on. In my opinion, I think the FBI and the US Attorney’s office need to focus attention on those sorts of violations of law and not to concoct justifications why college basketball recruiting is a nexus of evil worthy of a 2-year investigation.
Now that the NCAA has information at its disposal that its own internal investigators would never have discovered in a geological era, the question is what should they do with it and what are they likely to do with it. What they should do is pretty straightforward.
First, using standards of proof that are not nearly as stringent as the ones applied to guile and innocence in criminal proceedings, the NCAA should determine what schools and which coaches circumvented its recruiting rules and while they are at it they should determine if any violations of eligibility rules adhered to said illicit recruits. They should divide their findings into two categories – – the Sleazy/Slimy/Nefarious Ones and The Truly Outrageous/Blatant Flaunting of Standards Ones.
- For The Sleazy/Slimy Ones, ban any and all coaches involved from coaching at any NCAA institution (down through Division III) for ten years minimum and then allow those coaches back into the profession only after a case-by-case review of their behaviors and activities over that ten-year hiatus. Make it clear that a re-entry into the college coaching profession is not guaranteed. With regard to the schools, they will go on probation for 5 years and will not be allowed to participate in any conference basketball tournaments or in the NCAA men’s post season tournament for that same period of time. Also, no TV appearances on any of the network TV partners; only local telecasts will be allowed.
- For The Truly Outrageous/Blatant Flaunting of Standards Ones, the coaches should be banned-for-life from collegiate coaching at all levels. Period; no questions asked… With regard to the schools, if their athletic departments participated in actions of this nature, the school should get the “basketball death penalty” for ten years. If they want to play basketball on an intercollegiate basis, there is the NAIA – if those folks will have them.
I have no problem with hammering people and institutions that violated NCAA rules. Even though the rules are stupid in many cases, the schools and the coaches signed up to them; when there are violations, there need to be consequences. In this matter – as in most other situations – I do not believe that the end justifies the means.
- I do not want the FBI to become the investigative arm of the NCAA looking to enforce that NCAA rules with contorted legal logic as to what is criminal activity.
- I do not want the NCAA to continue its hypocrisy. If it must have its 500-page rule book defining acceptable and non-acceptable behavior(s), then it needs to enforce those rules with severity notwithstanding the economic impact of the enforcement. The fact that an academic fraud situation at UNC that was ongoing for about 2 decades has yet to be adjudicated despite the evidence coming to light about 5 years ago speaks to the influence of economic impacts on rule enforcement at the NCAA.
In addition, I do not believe for a moment that every under-the-table recruiting inducement would evaporate if college athletes in the revenue sports were paid. I have reservations about paying them that have nothing at all to do with the recent scandal revelations. However, I think that people who are strongly in favor of paying college athletes have wrongfully advocated that payments would obviate these sorts of behaviors.
Finally, in order to get out of this in a lighter tone than has been prevalent so far, let me leave you with the words of Alex Karras – a former student-athlete at an NCAA institution – regarding his time there:
“I never graduated from Iowa. But I was only there for two terms – Truman’s and Eisenhower’s.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………